“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is sweeter than wine,”
begins the Song of Songs – an ancient attestation to the timeless beauty of kisses.
In a country that has passed legislation affirming the rights of LGBTIQ couples to marry and build families, kisses exchanged between members of the same gender still hold a peculiar fascination. In other cultures, such things are sometimes perceived as simple gestures of courtesy and platonic affection. However, this is not the custom of the Maltese Islands. Maltese men in particular do not, as a rule, kiss one another on the mouth.
Not so in the Classical world, and certainly not so in the place where Jesus was born. There is only one kiss, recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, exchanged between the Messiah and a man.
In the words of Matthew:
, from the Greek κατεφίλησεν (katephilēsen), to kiss fervently and repeatedly, a shower of kisses which covered the face, the forehead, the eyes, the cheeks, and the mouth of Jesus.
One can surmise that other intimate kisses took place in Christ’s life. Kisses between Mother Mary and her son, kisses received from devoted followers like the penitent woman (Luke 7:38), and kisses shared with the beloved disciple, “whom Jesus loved” (John 12:23) beyond all reckoning.
However, the only definitive, attested, and indisputable kiss happens to be the one that initiates the Passion drama and culminates in a story of murder, mourning, and resurrection.
Following the scripturally derived Via Crucis, this moment immediately follows Jesus’ private agony in Gethsemane and proceeds his very public condemnation. It is in the garden, still smeared in the blood of his agony, foreshadowing the blood of his passion, that the mouth of Judas meets the mouth of Jesus.
Yet the mouth has always been a pathway into another world.
Of all the orifices of the human body, the mouth (or rather, its use) is the most emblematically human. It achieves this distinction by the articulation of words. It is the place from which thoughts are expelled, in a fantastic dance of glottal, labial, and lingual dexterity. It is the medium in which thoughts are suspended, like fish shimmering through the water. It is also the place from which kisses issue forth, minds reaching out to embrace other minds.
On the day proceeding the Passion, the mouth had been revealed as a portal into another, very special, kind of mind. It opened a channel of communication into the heart of deity, mysterious and unknowable but suddenly intimate and close.
In the institution of the Eucharist, words are the form by which matter is transformed. Both of these alchemical transubstantiations take place within the enclosed place of the mouth. The mouth is agape, hanging open in wonder, with ἀγάπη (agápē), the festal fulfilment of love.
“I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” (under the roof of my mouth) “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8). It is interesting to note that this fevered prayer was spoken by a Roman centurion appealing for the life of his beloved παῖς (pais), the young man who served him and was, some scholars surmise, his lover. It is sobering to remember that Jesus not only healed the young man but commended the centurion for the loving gesture of his faith, greater than all the faith of Israel.
Perhaps it is this sacramental consumption of love, the Eucharistic kiss, which is the closest that faithful Christians come, as a community of faith, to direct physical intimacy with their vision of the Lord. An immanent and embodied God revealed in the magic of kisses and their overwhelming, miraculous power.